Cold comfort for future generations

Is Greenpeace backing the best option for safer fridges? Nicholas Schoon reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The household fridge sits peacefully in a corner of your kitchen, humming quietly in its ceaseless battle against putrition. But in Germany, this most ubiquitous of white goods has been subjected to a political onslaught. Greenpeace has run a highly successful campaign to change the type of refrigerant used in fridges, and it is trying to do the same in Britain.

Yesterday John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, made a rare joint appearance with Lord Peter Melchett, director of Greenpeace UK. They were opening a new production line that will churn out 10,000 drink-chilling cabinets a year for use in pubs and clubs. The Elstar factory in Castle Donington, Derbyshire, has shunned the products offered by chemical giants like ICI and Du Pont and decided to switch to hydrocarbons, a ''green'' refrigerant fluid.

Greenpeace is thrilled and hopes the five companies that manufacture more than two million household fridges and freezers in Britain each year can be pressured into following suit.

This campaign arises out ofthe decision of most nations to phase out CFCs, the industrial gases that have been destroying the ozone layer. Their biggest use is in refrigerators and air-conditioners. For just over a year they have been banned altogether. It fell to the chemical multinationals that made CFCs to develop substitutes rapidly, and put them into production. That cost billions of pounds, but they figured it was money well spent if it provided them with the huge, assured market they had enjoyed with CFCs.

But environmentalists, and especially Greenpeace, attacked the substitutes they developed. One such is HCFCs, which also destroy ozone, albeit it much less drastically than CFCs. These, too, will be banned in the developed world by 2030. The industry's main hope therefore is HFCs, which leave ozone untouched but are extremely powerful "greenhouse" gases.Greenpeace decided to promote another much simpler substitute, hydrocarbons. These do no harm to the ozone layer, and while they are greenhouse gases, they are much weaker than HFCs.

Four years ago the environmental group decided to back technologists from the former East Germany who were working on hydrocarbon fridges, and a factory there that was still functioning, although teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.Greenpeace's campaigning has now persuaded every company selling household fridges in Germany, Europe's biggest market, to offer products containing hydrocarbon refrigerant.

There, hydrocarbon fridges are marketed as the environmentally responsible product, and make up about half of all sales. They are also selling well in Austria and Switzerland. The only British company manufacturing them is Electrolux, which exports its whole output - mainly to Germany!

HCFCs are clearly undesirable - they are, after all, being phased out under the international ozone treaty. But are hydrocarbons so good, and HFCs so bad?

The former only have a really strong claim to be ecologically superior if the refrigerants are leaking out into the air, where they can do their bit towards global warming. Certainly, the refrigeration systems used in supermarkets and other commercial premises leak their refrigerant fluid - about a quarter of it a year trickles out and has to be topped up. That is where the bulk of CFC sales have gone in the past, and where most HFCs are going now.

But there is a huge reluctance to switch over to hydrocarbons in these big, leaky systems with their long lengths of pipes, because these chemicals, unlike HFCs, are highly flammable. Any leakage and there is a danger of explosion.

At the other end of the market, in the little fridges used in homes, small shops and pubs, the refrigerant is hermetically sealed for its entire life, so there is very little danger of leakage.Provided the HFCs are destroyed or recycled when the fridge is scrapped, they make no contribution to global warming.

Thus while Greenpeace's successful campaign to persuade an industry to change basic technology is impressive, it seems unlikely to achieve any great environmental gain.

In any case, when it comes to buying fridges, the British consumer shows little of that earnest German ecological consciousness. Talk to anyone in the business and they will tell you: what counts in the showroom is price, price and price.